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Published online: 26 Mar 2019.

World Futures, 0: 1–28, 2019
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0260-4027 print / 1556-1844 online
DOI: 10.1080/02604027.2019.1586452



Planetary Health Lab, University of Edinburgh, Hillsborough, USA

Address correspondence to Sally J. Goerner, Planetary Health Lab, University of Edinburgh, Bridge St., Hillsborough, NC 27278, USA. E-mail:

Color versions of one or more of the figures in the article can be found online at

We live in a head-spinning, gut-wrenching time of multiplying crises. At home we face outsourced jobs, crumbling cities, underpaid teachers, unaffordable healthcare, endless wars, political corruption, a co-opted corporate media, skyrocketing inequality, and public “austerity” measures whose main purpose is to make tax-breaks for the rich more affordable. Working-class stagnation is producing widespread anxiety, mounting debt, and “despair deaths” from opioid abuse. Fear is fueling populist outrage, along with extremism, authoritarianism, and the conditions for a fascist takeover. Meanwhile, climate change poses an existential threat to humanity itself. All of these calamities spring from the same root cause: an oligarchic capitalism that puts short-term profit for owners over people and planet. While this system seems immutable, upheavals from Occupy Wall Street to the rise of right-wing populism signal a backlash to a political-economic establishment that treats people and planet as resources to be pillaged and expenses to be minimized. Its failures have also been driving the development of new possibilities in the form of more systemic approaches. Still, while systems thinking has improved approaches in fields from agriculture to medicine, so far none of these reforms have been able to channel public frustration into true transformation because none addresses the root problem: oligarchy. The science of systemic vitality we need is also being born, but so far, its findings are diffuse. This article shows how the science of energy systems can galvanize today’s economic reformation by articulating the common sense rules and rigorous measures of systemic vitality, while anchoring them in an evidence-based vision of humanity as a collaborative learning species. The result is a practical path to building systemic socioeconomic vitality by revitalizing human networks, energizing collective learning, and clarifying why oligarchic capitalism is a distortion of our original democratic free-enterprise dream, which is now careening toward collapse.

KEYWORDS: Big history, energy networks, economic development, great change, paradigm shift, regenerative economics, societal learning.


Your people dreamed of huge factories, tall buildings, as many cars as there are raindrops in this river. Now you begin to see that your dream is a nightmare.[How might we make things better?] Thats simple. All you have to do is change the dream. You need only plant a different seed, teach your children to dream new dreams.

— Elder of Ecuador’s Shuar tribe, 19911

Energy makes sense as a foundation for a science of human systems for many reasons. Energy is universal: it applies to living, nonliving and supra-living systems such as ecosystems and economies. It is dynamic and causal, providing the fuel for motion, and the pressures that drive development. It is lawful, which makes systemic behavior predictable, and the patterns it produces provide targets and measures for healthy outcomes (Figure 1). Its probing, seeping nature even explains why all things are connected, and why, in the end, all things are One.

Figure 1. Precise, predictable, universal patterns have been known since the ancient Greeks.

Yet energy’s most powerful impact comes from its role in “information” because it naturalizes intelligence, communication, culture and learning, making them logical elements of our evolving universe. The result is an empirical explanation of why humanity is a collaborative learning species that thrives by forging ever-better hypotheses about how the world works, and then revising its collective behavior to match. In short, our survival strategy is to adapt rapidly by learning collectively — that’s why we talk and build scientific theories.

This learning lens revises our vision of what’s happening today. Here, the chaos of our times is driving a societal learning process, and with it, the birth of a new dream. Although the process is not conscious, “We the People” of the modern world are, as the opening quote suggests, already changing our dream from gluttonous consumption to something more sustainable and desirable.

Paradigms form the hub of collective learning because societies construct their reality around them. Societies use their core beliefs as rules of daily life, and create heavy incentives to fit the mold. For example, if your paradigm says competition makes all things better, then you salt incentives for competition everywhere. If it says women are inept, you do not hire them as chief executive officers. As long as the paradigm is working, most people go about their lives assuming it is an accurate map whose rules reflect the rules of reality. Paradigms, however, rise and fall, and when they fail — when the paradigm stops working for large numbers of people — the associated social construction starts to break down. Because the dominant paradigm colors every aspect of life, its demise produces a systemic failure, with an interlocking web of crises emerging in multiple arenas. Systemic pressures also emerge and drive people to find better ways across this same gamut.

We call the kind of multifaceted paradigm shift that ensues a great change. It is a collective learning process emerging in response to the systemic failure of an originally beloved worldview. It affects every aspect of society, rearranging beliefs and behaviors as it goes. This is what’s happening today.

While external threats and environmental crises are often part of the problem, the kind of systemic failure that drives great change is usually caused by some form of oligarchic dysfunction, particularly corruption and incompetence in major institutions. The terminology is important here. While “oligarchy” is defined as “rule by the few,” it should not be equated with wealth, power, or hierarchy per se. Instead, all of these phenomena have healthy and unhealthy versions, with the key difference being whether hierarchical power-structures — which are necessary in large groups — are used to promote the health of the whole or to increase the power and wealth of a few people regardless of the harm done to the rest of the system. Thus, in The Republic, Plato (381 BC) describes oligarchy as government by “greedy men” who subvert laws, policies, and beliefs to promote their own interests. Plato notes that oligarchs are so obsessed with money that they rig the system to redistribute wealth upward; show callous disregard for the harm they do; and “are reluctant to pay taxes” for the common good. Consequently, in oligarchies, elites become fabulously wealthy, while the public becomes increasingly poor, disenfranchized, and burdened by debt.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, oligarchic beliefs (i.e., elite-serving ones) can infect any hierarchical system: religious, governmental, profit, nonprofit, and even scientific. Institutional economists Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) used the terms extractive and solution-seeking to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms. Democratic free nterprise, for example, is supposed to be a solution-seeking system, with millions of entrepreneurs free to develop better ways and bring them to fruition in an open marketplace of ideas. Oligarchies, on the other hand, create extractive economies, ones designed to pull resources from the bottom up by designing policies and laws to advantage the already rich and powerful.

Oligarchic dysfunction tends to follow a standard lifecycle. Oligarchies become increasingly unstable over time because they extract too much from people and planet, and block critical improvements that do not favor elites. However, if the society does not collapse outright, surviving an oligarchic crisis is likely to spawn a rethinking that produces some set of reforms. Written laws, human rights, checks and balances, and democracy are all examples of post-crisis reforms; these explain why, as Martin Luther King Jr. (1958) observed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Each new post-apocalyptic upsurge is also motivated by what Sorokin (1987) called a ‘spiritual spur,’ a higher cause that inspires people to look beyond themselves and serve a greater good. This spur harnesses people’s hearts, generating widespread and freely given commitment. Over time, however, oligarchic forces tend to regroup and work their way back to dominance, usually by co-opting the society’s original noble vision and its institutions. But this resurgence also ends in crisis.

Figure 2. Recent cycles of civilization.

This oligarchic cycle is easy to see in Western civilization (Figure 2). Roman plebeian-citizens, for example, freely dedicated themselves to building a Republic out of civic virtue and political self-reform, but Rome’s Republic eventually became an empire run by extractive elites and fraught with endless battles for dominance. Medieval men set their hearts on building God’s City on earth, but the medieval church and aristocracy became similarly corrupt, quarrel-some, and extractive. The Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment eventually produced the modern dream of free-enterprise democracy. Thousands of reformers sacrificed and died to build a new society around liberty, equality, justice, and reason, but today’s oligarchic capitalism has turned this dream into a nightmare of unchecked greed and callous disregard, which is draining real-economy networks, dismantling democracy, and destroying the biosphere, while claiming to be the best and only way to run civilization.

We are now facing a classic oligarchic failure with interlocking crises pushing global civilization to learn as a whole. So, let us review: Communism and socialism have failed, and the economic meltdown of 2008 has left serious doubts about the reigning neoliberal capitalism as well. Inequality is skyrocketing; known solutions to critical problems from debt to climate change languish; and concerns about corporate and political corruption voiced by 60–80% of the population are ignored. Trickle-down economists see nothing wrong, but bellwethers of public frustration can be seen in the populist revolt against establishment institutions seen in the yellow-vest demonstrations in France and the election of Donald Trump.

Today’s oligarchic capitalism is failing because it believes maximizing short-term profit for owners creates the best of all possible worlds regardless of how much harm is done to people and planet. This approach has produced all the crises mentioned in the introduction, from crumbling schools and out-sourced jobs to climate change and political corruption. The only way to extract ourselves from this morass is to develop a more accurate understanding of how to build truly healthy human systems. Unfortunately, today’s corporate oligarchy seems too immutable to change, and the establishment’s research-based conclusions seem more like scientific facts than theories to be revised. Most people also still believe in modernity’s original free-enterprise dream and do not realize that it’s been turned into free-market piracy designed to redistribute wealth to elites. (Think bailouts for big corporations and tax breaks for the rich.)

Oligarchic capitalism continues because its beliefs reinforce status quo arrangements, shaping the way we see everything from proper human relationships to valid scientific theories. Today, for example, we take it for granted that: (a) a company’s “owners” should own all the fruits of the company’s labors, while the employees who produce those fruits are “expenses” whose income should be minimized as a way to curtail costs; (b) optimal economic outcomes come from rational pursuit of self-interest alone; (c) Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is a valid measure of economic health; and (d) human behavior is largely fixed in our genes. Human behavior from tax policies to hiring practices follow in-kind, as do ramifications from debt to domestic violence.

Oligarchic capitalism thrives on these ideas because they justify its practices. The idea that optimal outcomes emerge from self-interest justifies self-serving behaviors among elites. Belief that “owners” have a right to wealth created by other people justifies oligarchic extraction. The idea that GDP growth is always good supports oligarchic concentration by ignoring where money actually goes. The idea that human behavior is fixed in our genes then makes serious change seem either unlikely or impossible.

None of these beliefs, however, are likely to survive today’s transition. The reason for this is that when a paradigm fails, its beliefs begin to look outdated at best, and at worst, absurd. Flat-earth proponents and climate-change deniers are examples of this.

Massive societal pressures are already turning today’s orthodoxy from immutable to absurd. Thus, beneath a confident fac¸ade of business as usual, the many troubles generated by oligarchic capitalism have been driving people in numerous fields to develop better ways for decades. Today’s better ways include everything from resilient agriculture and integrative medicine to socially responsible investing. Science, of course, has also been developing better ways, but the thread connecting this diversity is much easier to see. In essence, both science and society are shifting to seeing things as whole systems, meaning: “any assembly of parts whose relationships make them interdependent.” Integrative medicine looks at human health as a whole system; urban planners take this approach to cities, farmers do this with agriculture, the sustainability movement with the biosphere; and a new breed of institutional economists are seeking to understand systemic economic functioning by looking at integrated social-political-economic systems. After 50 years of the ecology movement even school children are accustomed to looking at things as systems.

Yet, while all such systemic reforms are important, none has been able to overturn today’s oligarchic paradigm because none fully addresses the root problem of how to create lasting, systemic health. Instead, most merely offer palliative relief to the symptoms of oligarchic dysfunction. Environmentalists, for example, have made “sustainability” a global imperative, but while most people want environmental protection, they worry most about having a job that pays enough to keep their families healthy and well fed. Until we can articulate a demonstrably better answer to how to create systemic health for our entire global civilization, we will be stuck responding reactively and tinkering around the edges of today’s trickle-down worldview.

We believe today’s social and scientific reforms are coalescing into a new vision capable of channeling today’s frustration into a new dream. Like a second Scientific Revolution supporting a second Enlightenment, we believe today’s Energy System Sciences2 (ESS) can help bring forth this better way by creating a more accurate understanding of the rules of systemic vitality. However, since the vision of humanity as a collaborative-learning species forms the beating heart of this dream, let us start with the scientific explanation of why this image is literal.


What are human beings like and where are we going? Every paradigm must answer certain core questions of life. Unfortunately, the answers coming from the current theory of evolution are distinctly dismal. Thanks to Darwinian theory, most modern scientists see life as an accident that proceeds through a nature red in tooth and claw. Evolutionary improvements come from competition, pursuit of self-interest, and random mutations acting on “selfish” genes. Social Darwinists applying this theory to society at large use “survival of the fittest” to justify elitism, imperialism, and racism, while discouraging reform.

What could possibly overturn this science-based story? The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development, and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization. This self-organizing story of evolution creates a vastly more optimistic view of human nature and destiny based on a more integrated scientific understanding. Instead of solely a biological process, this Dynamic3 theory of evolution says energy processes gave rise to and still shape all organization, from the origins of matter and life to the latest cycles of civilization. Here life, intelligence, and civilization are not pointless products of random collisions but natural creations of a self-organizing universe. Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces, like gravity and electromagnetism, that connect us in an all-embracing, ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration, and balance.

The Basic Process

This Dynamic story of evolution starts with the observation that the incredible organization woven throughout the cosmos is not an accident, but a natural result of energy dynamics. So, where does organization come from? In 1977, Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize for showing how an energy process called self-organization drives the emergence of new patterns of organization, and the ongoing, cyclical development of existing ones (Prigogine, 1980).

During self-organization, energy buildups create pressures that push the system to change. Naturally occurring diversity (i.e., small differences) provides the seed crystals that catalyze new patterns of organization by opening new paths of flow. Constraints determine whether pressures fuel new organization or merely dissipate. Nature — or really the cosmos — selects what works from the many upstart organizations that emerge. A tornado’s funnel, for example, is a dynamic form of organization, which emerges from the confluence of: (1) heat (i.e., a temperature gradient that creates pressure); (2) naturally occurring variations (i.e., small gusts, twists of geography, etc.); and (3) geographical constraints that force organizational change by blocking more gradual, dissipative flow. Figure 3 shows how the process repeats in boiling water.

Figure 3. Boiling water as self-organization. Turning up the heat on a pot of water creates pressure that pushes molecules to move faster and faster until they can go no faster via random collisions. Microscopic impurities in the water become seed crystals for little bubbles that move up the side of the pot. Some eventually reach the top, lose their heat, and sink back down. This triggers a large circular flow. If the heat/pressure continues, the pattern will repeat. The circular flow will go faster and faster until it reaches the limits of that pattern, and some small bubbles will cause the water system to re-organize into a yet more intricate patterns, like figure “8”s. If all impurities are removed, bubbles do not form and pressure builds until the system explodes instead of self-organizing.


Self-organization produces a standard S-curve, life-cycle (Figure 4). First, pressure, in the form of pent-up energy, pushes new organizations to emerge or drives existing ones to develop further. In nonliving systems, the organization grows, draining the energy supply, until the fuel is spent and the organization disappears. A hurricane, for example, emerges; grows; reaches the limits of its energy supply; diminishes; and disappears. Living systems add the potential to find a new energy source or a new pattern of behavior that supports survival. Human systems add learning and conscious restructuring. Successful businesses and civilizations may reinvent themselves, which may produce a new, more complex stage of development.

Figure 4. The S-curve of development.

Cycles of Development

Prigogine won the Nobel prize for showing how repeating cycles of self-organization are behind the succession of increasingly complex forms from the origins of atoms and galaxies to the latest incarnations of life and civilization. In each round: pressure drives, diversity catalyzes, energy fuels, and constraints shape the emergence of new organizations. The first atoms were forged in the intense pressure of the Big Bang, and life emerged from the fiery furnace of early Earth’s primordial chemical soup. The first hierarchical civilizations emerged in constrained areas of fertile land, such as the Tigris and Indus river valleys, where population pressures created intense conflicts over land, giving rise to territorial wars and eventually a warrior administrative class.

Although self-organizing processes strive toward optimal outcomes, they never fully succeed. Instead, every pattern has its limits, and the universe expanding from the Big Bang is constantly pushing for more. As a result, evolutionary development appears as a recursive process of trial-and-error learning following a punctuated, stair-step pattern of increasing complexity (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Self-organization produces a stair-step progression of increasing complexity.

Universal Laws and Unique Specifics

Each new level of emergence brings novel rules, but the laws of the lower-level systems still apply to everything above. Biological organisms, for example, follow laws, such as responding functionally to information, that are not found in physics; and human systems obey laws, such as the ability to create scientific theories not found in biology per se. Yet, despite having some unique rules, humanity is still subject to the laws of biology, and humanity and biology are both still subject to the laws of physics.

Self-organization’s causal explanations for why systems emerge, develop, and evolve as they do also allows researchers to predict a great deal of systemic behavior, while its universal nature explains why similar laws and dynamics are found from physics and biology to sociology. The concept of pressure driving change, for example, applies to hurricanes, living organisms, and economies alike.

Precise, Predictable Patterns of Growth and Development

Rigor is also aided by the fact that self-organization produces precise, predictable patterns of growth and development. The surface-volume law provides the classic example. A developing embryo demonstrates the process (Figure 6).

Figure 6. An embryo exhibits surface-volume growth. An embryo starts as a single cell that grows to a certain size, and then divides into two cells that couple back together. The process then repeats with each cell growing and dividing to create 4, 8, 16 cells, and so on. The result is a precise predictable pattern of development.

Ever notice that large systems are built of smaller systems, which are built of smaller systems still? Living organisms are built of cells linked into tissue, organs, and organ systems. Armies consist of platoons, linked together in regiments, brigades, and divisions. The surface-volume law explains this pattern. In essence, dynamic organizations are held together by bonds, and the bigger the organization grows the more those bonds are stretched, until they reach a breaking point. Once bonds reach a breaking point, the only way for the system to get bigger is to break into two smaller bodies, which then couple back together in a larger, reciprocating whole. This pattern is predictable and measurable because breakpoints occur when the system reaches an exact 2/3rd power ratio of the system’s surface area to its volume (size). Anthropologist Robert Carneiro (1967) showed that surface-volume growth also applies to human systems. When aboriginal villages reach a certain size, they either increase their internal connections by adding new social ties (councils, clan affiliation, etc.) or break into two smaller villages that get by on existing relationship patterns. These breakpoints occurred near the 2/3rd power ratio of the village’s “surface area,” measured by density of ties, and its “volume,” as calculated as population size.

Interdependence and Cooperation

The surface-volume law also explains why smaller “parts” are linked in profoundly interdependent arrangements. Atoms, molecules, living cells, multicellular animals, herds, cities, and civilizations all consist of smaller pieces coming together in new patterns of organization. The image of smaller entities coming together to form a single interdependent entity is particularly interesting in biology because it puts cooperation at the center of increasing complexity. Margulis (1981) confirms that the main way biological organisms become more complex is through previously independent lifeforms fusing into larger unified organisms. For example, the mitochondria, flagella, and nucleus of eukaryotic cells were once independent prokaryotic cells, and land plants reflect an immortal marriage between photosynthetic algae and rugged, non-photosynthetic lichens. Symbiotic linking also explains why human beings are social animals.


Surface-volume development produces a pattern we call intricacy, lacelike networks of small circles bound together in an ever-growing mesh of connective tissue. Intricacy’s core rule, small and connected strength and speed, provides the core definitions of “smart growth” and “healthy community.” Like a lace tablecloth, a system’s resilience and strength come from keeping energy flowing through thousands of small circles bound in an ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue. In human systems, this means communities need a well-knit social fabric with firm but flexible bonds to remain resilient and adaptive. Conversely, societies that try to grow bigger without sufficient connective tissue become bubble-like and prone to collapse.


Still, the need to stay collaboratively connected also explains why hierarchical structures are necessary for human groups beyond a certain size. Thus, while the surface-volume development initially drives the growth of small-scale intricacy, organizations eventually become so big that they can no longer maintain coherence with horizontal connections. At this point, growth pressures begin to drive the development of hierarchical structures (i.e., vertical ones). As Figure 7 shows, the pressure to stay connected drove the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and human groups from forging pods to hierarchical civilizations.

Figure 7. The evolution of nerves, brains, and hierarchies. As organizations grow bigger, the need to stay collaboratively connected created pressures that drove the development of nerves, nervous systems, and brains. Similar growth pressures also drove human groups to develop new forms of organizational structures, economic patterns, and cultural mores that help large groups live and work together.

For example, growth pressures and the need to stay collaboratively connected pushed early agrarian communities to become hierarchical societies. Close to the land and each other, early agrarian villages used a mutualist culture, a reciprocity-based system in which leadership was a fiduciary responsibility to shepherd the health of the community, not an opportunity to exploit other members. But once a village grows beyond about 350 people, mutualist ways start to break down because community members no longer know each other well enough to coordinate for common cause. Growth pressures first drove the creation of new forms of communication, including the symbol-system we call money and mythic stories, which helped pass cultural lessons down the generations. Eventually, however, the need to mobilize rapidly for defense required new forms of connective tissue; in this case, the development of command-and-control hierarchies run by warrior-chiefs. One man deciding for all backed by an efficient administrative hierarchy allowed fragmenting societies to act as a whole. Societies without them could not mobilize fast enough to survive. Still, while hierarchies are critical to communication, coordination, and circulation in large groups, oligarchic hierarchies tend to become elite-serving and extractive. So, while hierarchies are necessary, the only ones that last are those whose leadership maintain the health of the whole, including robust circulation across levels.

The Importance of Being Regenerative

The systems we care most about — living organisms, ecosystems, and societies — are also specifically designed to be regenerative (i.e., self-feeding and self-renewing). Where nonliving flows like hurricanes dissolve once the pressure dissipates, regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and internal processes, organization, and general revitalization. Your body channels the food you eat into building muscle, brain, and internal metabolic processes. The biosphere keeps its members alive by constantly circulating carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on throughout all levels of the whole. Societies, economies, and businesses that want to live long and prosper must also channel resources into self-renewal. This means nourishing the human, social, intellectual, and physical capital upon which the future depends by investing in schools, roads, businesses, environmental protection, and learning processes like science.

Communication and Collective Intelligence

The need to remain collaboratively connected also helps explain the origins of intelligence and internal communication. From an energy perspective, “information” began as tiny energy nudges — a few photons of light or the chemical trail we call smell — which interacted physically with the system. “Intelligence,” that is, responding functionally to informative nudges, began when some bit of energy accidentally propelled the system toward a beneficial outcome, such as food for continued activity. Responding effectively to information evolved rapidly after that because organisms that did so survived longer than those that did not.

As life became more complex, the need to stay collaboratively connected spurred the development of new forms of communication and connective tissue (i.e., infrastructure). Thus, as single-celled organisms developed into multicellular organisms, “communication,” that is, circulating information among members, became essential to maintaining cooperative coordination in ever-larger wholes. The same pressures affect groups of multicellular animals (i.e., herds, flocks, and societies). Communication, collective intelligence, and common-cause infrastructure coevolve because processing information and preserving collective lessons vastly increases a group’s chances of survival (Maturana &Varela, 1987). The more complex organizations became, the more critical these systems became. The result was a punctuated pattern of co-evolving intelligence, communication, and organizational infrastructure moving from the first living cells to consciously learning human societies. Each new stage increased the system’s organizational power and speed of adaptation. In human groups this process produced language, culture and science, supported by roads, schools, and now the Internet.

A Collaborative Learning Species

Humanity is the cutting edge of collaborative learning on earth. We are a consciously learning species that thrives by pooling information, forging ever-better hypotheses about how the world works, and then changing our behavior to fit our beliefs. We are not swift of feet nor sharp of tooth, but we are very, very good at finding patterns and using them to change our beliefs, our behavior, and our world.

This ability has allowed us to adapt more rapidly and innovate more powerfully than any other species on earth. It is directly responsible for all the marvels we live with today. Yet human learning is never done. Despite our adaptive talents, every pattern of civilization eventually reaches limits that force a choice: cling to old ways and decline, or innovate and transform.

Regenerative Learning

This learning lens explains why our future hangs so precariously on becoming a solution-seeking society, or more specifically, a Regenerative Learning civilization. “Regenerative” means following the central law of vitality: be self-nourishing and self-renewing while living in harmony and balance with all parts of the larger whole. Becoming a “learning” society means energizing our collective capacity to develop ever-better ways to thrive as a social, political, economic, and environmental whole.

Measuring Regenerative Vitality

Today’s scientific surprise is that we can use energy patterns and principles to measure systemic health, and create precise targets for optimal socioeconomic outcomes. Another universal pattern, fractal branching structures, for example, provides quantitative measures that indicate whether a hierarchy is healthy or unhealthy. The explanation for this is surprisingly simple. Thus, a wide variety of systems — from leaves, lungs, and river deltas to circulatory systems and ecosystems — maintain a power-law ratio4 of small, medium, and large elements arranged in a hierarchical branching structure. Your circulatory system, for example, has a few large, highly efficient conduits branching into successively smaller, more numerous, less efficient conduits below. A healthy ecosystem has a few large predators atop a pyramid of successively smaller and more numerous prey animals. Such distributions of sizes are common because they help optimize circulation across scales. Optimal cross-scale circulation is likely to be selected because it nourishes activity at every level. Big, efficient elements (arteries or multinationals) provide the speed and volume needed for rapid cross-level circulation, while the many small elements (capillaries or local contractors) reach every nook and cranny. Conversely, as predator-prey models show, failure to maintain a proper balance of sizes undermines circulation, which can lead to collapse. Nowadays, we call these structures “fractals” and use power-law math to measure the optimal balance of sizes needed for systemic health (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Fractal structures maintain a power-law balance of small, medium, and large elements.

The fact that power-law distributions support optimal circulation means we can use them as targets for healthy arrangements in human systems. Salingaros (2005), for example, shows how a fractal layout of roads/pathways helps catalyze a broad spectrum of city processes, including innovation, communication, and community cohesion. Goerner, Lietaer, and Ulanowicz (2009) used fractal designs to explain the Goldilocks Rule of Banking — why each scale needs banks that are “just right” to meet the commercial needs of that scale.

Where some economists see big, efficient organizations as the primary source of vitality and others emphasize the small and local, fractals actually teach us that vitality requires a balance and integration of sizes, which combine the best of both worlds. The need for balance is easy to see. Big firms with economies of scale are generally more productive and offer higher wages, but towns dominated by a few large companies are brittle — if a mainstay company leaves, they have no other industries to fall back on. A bevy of small businesses offers more choice, more redundancy, but economies dominated by small firms tend to be sluggish because economic surplus is hard to maintain. This leaves overstretched staffs with little money for specialization, expansion, or quality improvements.

From a fractal perspective, imbalances, such as having too many large corporations, are akin to having too many large predators. Domination by a few extremely large, highly efficient corporations is dangerous because such organizations create powerful extractive pulls that siphon wealth from lower levels and channel it to distant headquarters. These extractive pulls hollow out local economies, erode local diversity, reduce local circulation, and leave fragile and stagnant local networks. Over time, reduced circulation causes economic necrosis — the dying off of so much economic tissue that the health of the whole economy declines. The 2008 financial crisis caused by too-big-to-fail banks shows the problem.

Ulanowicz et al. (2009) also used power-law distributions to identify the balance of resilience and efficiency needed for systemic health. Ulanowicz and colleagues noted that the characteristics that support efficiency (i.e., large size, high-capacity streamlining) are in opposition to those that support resilience (i.e., small size, diversity, dense connectivity). Healthy systems must maintain a balance of both because both are important and extremes of either create problems. Too much efficiency creates brittleness, while too much small-scale diversity creates low-energy stagnation. Ulanowicz et al. (2009) used the balance of sizes found in healthy natural systems to create the Window of Vitality, a quantitative measure of the balance of resilience and efficiency needed to support optimal systemic health in economic and financial networks. Fractal measures also explain the need to balance flexibility constraints (liberty and laws), and diversity-conformity.

Fractals however, are only one of many useful universal patterns. Members of the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics have used such patterns and principles to create 10 quantitative measures5 of systemic health that provide actionable guidelines and targets for policy and practice. The key principles here are:

  1. Invest in human capital, common-cause infrastructure, and human networks.
  2. Circulate energy, information, resources, and money robustly across scales.
  3. Maintain reliable inputs.
  4. Maintain healthy outputs.
  5. Be mutualistic — promote common-cause values and mutually beneficial relationships.
  6. Seek a balance of unity and diversity.
  7. Promote constructive activity. Limit extractive and speculative processes.
  8. Maintain a healthy balance of small, medium, and large organizations.
  9. Maintain a healthy balance of resilience and efficiency.
  10. Promote effective collective learning.


Learning logic explains why nourishing a society’s political-economic mind with accurate information is just as critical to long-term vitality as building economic muscle. What else makes a society systemically healthy? Self-organization’s story of economic vitality starts with the realization that energy not only changes our view of human nature, it changes our vision of the kind of system economies are. In particular, energy dynamics naturally produce what researchers call flow-networks. A flow-network is any system whose existence arises from and depends on circulating energy, resources, or information throughout the entirety of their being. Your body, for example, is an integrated network of cells kept healthy by the circulation of water, nutrients, and internal products. Ecosystems are networks of plants and animals that add to and draw from flows of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and so on. Economies are interlinked networks of people, businesses, and communities that depend on the circulation of money, information, resources, products, and so on (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Some common flow-networks.

Circulation’s central role in flow-network functioning brings us to an important shift in terms. While most people associate the term “energy” with various forms of fuel (oil, gas, electrical, etc.), in flow-networks it refers to any kind of flow that is critical to the system under study. Ecologists, for example, study the flow of carbon and oxygen in the biosphere; food-security researchers study the flow of commodities; and economists study the flow of money, information, resources, and products in economic networks. Robust circulation of accurate information is critical to societal vitality because our societal brain is just as important as our economic muscle.

Instead of a black box of jostling, economic agents, flow-network researchers see economies as intricately organized, metabolic systems. Like the metabolic processes found in living systems, economies are self-feeding, self-renewing systems for turning energy, information, and resources into all the functions, products, and fuel a society needs to thrive. Like organs in the body, all social, economic, political, and environmental systems are interconnected and interdependent, with each playing a critical role in systemic health. Money is like blood: it is a vehicle for circulating resources and nourishing economic muscle and brain.

Naturally, in this view economic vitality rests first and foremost on the health of the human networks that do all the work. Here, long-term vitality is not automatic; it has to be nurtured. It depends largely on the care and feeding of the entire network of interconnected individuals, businesses, communities, cities, value-chains, societies, governments, and even the biosphere, all of which play critical roles in production, distribution, and learning.

Societies that want to remain vibrant for long periods must also be regenerative; they must constantly renew and revitalize themselves by channeling flows back into nourishing their human networks. Just as your body channels resources into building muscle and brain, economic vitality requires investing money, resources, and information in nourishing human, social, intellectual, physical, and environmental capital.

Where money goes and how resources are used is critical because circulation needs to nourish all sectors and levels. Like necrosis in living organisms, undernourished segments of the economy wither, and if large swaths of economic tissue die off the whole system may collapse.

While such metabolic ideas are well documented, the addition of collaborative learning adds a new twist. Orthodox economists largely overlooked learning, but that is now changing. In Creating a Learning Society, for example, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Greenwald (2014) showed how standards of living have skyrocketed as a result of global civilization “learning to learn” more effectively as a result of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

So, what makes a society healthy? The laws of self-organizing networks outline the basic rules for creating healthy human networks. These can be grouped into four main categories.

The Laws of Flow

Circulation affects economies in much the same way it affects living organisms: it nourishes, energizes, and connects a society’s collaborative network. Major influxes of money, information, ideas, resources, and energy (fuel) spur major leaps in economic development. In the 15th century, for example, renewed trade and Gutenberg’s press produced the Renaissance, and a new fascination with scientific inquiry that eventually spawned the Scientific Revolution. In the 19th century, the advent of coal and natural gas, and innovations like the steam engine generated the Industrial Revolution and the many wonders we have today.

Regenerative circulation also teaches us that where money, information, and resources go is more important than how much of these there are. In Keynesian economics, for example, poor monetary circulation to the working public — from lost jobs, low wages, and closed factories — reduces aggregate demand, decreases circulation, and causes economic necrosis regardless of the size of GDP. Long-term health also requires maintaining reliable inputs of critical resources from water and energy to money and information, and healthy outputs, so as to avoid poisoning its own nest. These last, of course, are core tenets of the sustainability movement.

Here, the first law of political-economic flow is: pay attention to where pressure is building! Although they may take a long time to reach a crisis point, (a) unmet human needs; (b) underutilized human resources; and/or (c) unresolved crises eventually create pressures that drive transformative change, which can be either healthy or catastrophic.

The Laws of Morality

Mutually beneficial relationships and common-cause values are critical because economic networks are collaborations built of specialists who produce more working together than anyone can alone. Commitment to the health of the whole is critical because specialists are linked in interlocking circuits such that the health of every individual depends on the health of the whole (and vice versa). Common-cause values such as justice, fairness, integrity, and reciprocity form the grease that lubricates collaboration and the glue that holds specialists together. Injustice, inequality, and corruption breed instability because they erode binding ties. A mountain of sociological research confirms these facts.

Still, while universal values such as justice and fairness are essential, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) work shows that managing Commons requires a value system that combines elements of both right and left — for example, individual contribution and responsibility (no freeloaders), and inclusive democratic say in governance, rules, oversight, and punishment.

The Laws of Organizational Development

Organizational structure is critical to circulation, stability, and connection. Structure provides the conduits through which money, resources, goods, services, information, and power flow. Intricate connections keep communities resilient, while hierarchical structures provide connective tissue for multiscale integration. Precise patterns of development help us predict and measure structural health because they represent relatively optimal structures selected over time. The surface-volume law explains why both intricacy and hierarchy are needed, while fractals explain why hierarchical health requires balance and integration of: sizes; resilience and efficiency; and liberty and laws.

The Laws of Collective Learning

We are a solution-seeking species that thrives by innovating, curating, and collectively learning our way toward ever-better methods of living in the world. Long-term vitality requires energizing our collective learning, not only with such obvious elements as: empowering education; widespread access to accurate information; and open, honest forms for processing idea but also by integrating all the laws of systemic health from circulation and structure to common-cause values.

Human beings are meaning-making creatures who thrive on purpose, belonging, contribution, caring, and integrity. Inequity undermines these elements, while collaborative culture enhances them. Human survival depends on having an effective information-processing system, a wisdom-weaving web built around evidence, critical thinking, appreciation of differences, and the skills for working together on mutually beneficial teams. This system must be inclusive, participatory, and have widespread commitment to the health of the whole. It must combine fine-grained intricacy and community-serving hierarchy. It must have enough diversity to fill niches and find new ways and a healthy balance of liberty and laws to channel innovation toward productive ends. It must maintain robust circulation and pay attention to where pressure is building. But, most of all, effective collective learning requires effective checks on power.


This concludes our brief tour of how the science of energy systems leads to a new story of what makes a society healthy. Kate Raworth summarizes the goal: “Instead of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”6

While this narrative differs dramatically from oligarchic logic, it mainly consists of large doses of common sense backed by well-established economics. Instead of assuming money automatically creates vitality, we now know systemic health requires building constructive, synergetic human networks, linked by mutual benefit, energized by common cause, and fueled by the robust circulation of money, information, and resources. Instead of subsidizing big corporations, economic health requires the constant care and feeding of human networks and commonwealth capital.

Now notice that the only thing new about the above principles is the math we use to measure them. This brings us to ESS’s other big contribution: using the laws of self-organizing systems to show how long-standing insights fit together to create a more accurate picture of systemic health, which is nevertheless very familiar.

The laws of self-organized vitality, for example, dovetail nicely with the Keynesian/New Deal approaches developed in the 1930s. In energy terms, Keynesian New-Dealers sought to improve economic circulation by making sure there is enough “effective demand” (i.e., distributed buying power) for real-economy networks to grow in constructive ways. This required strong government intervention (constraints) especially against excessive concentrations of wealth and power (imbalances). Thus, while Keynes himself supported capitalism, he believed the only way to save it was to maintain a balance of power between labor and capital. In the 1930s this meant empowering the working population. Keynesian methods for restoring a balance of power included: (a) antitrust legislation; (b) high taxes on the rich; and (c) support for worker rights and organizations, particularly unions.

New Deal practices, such as improving circulation, restoring balance, and spurring regenerative investment, revitalized human networks and generated a phenomenal, 50-year boom in prosperity and widespread well-being. Infrastructure was built, including roads, schools, and utilities (regenerative investment). Monopolistic dominance subsided, and a broad middle-class emerged (fractal distribution). “Common good” legislation produce bipartisan accomplishments such as the Fairness Doctrine in media, Occupational Safety in the workplace, and the Environmental Protection Agency (adaptive action toward systemic health).

Adam Smith’s invisible hand of market decision making also bears a striking resemblance to collective learning taking place in a societal hive-mind, guided by the invisible, ordering pressures of self-organization. The catch is that our societal hive-mind only works well under certain conditions, and many of the key ingredients — such as fairness and constraints on excess power — are sadly lacking today.

The moral principles we need to restore come most clearly from blending Adam Smith, Elinor Ostrom, and ESS in a way that integrates values from both right and left. Long famed as the father of free-enterprise economics, Adam Smith wrote two books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith (1759/2009), and The Wealth of Nations Smith (1776/1991). While Wealth is the most famous, Moral Sentiments makes it clear that free-flowing markets only work wonders when properly channeled by moral and legal constraints. Ostrom’s (1990) work in Governing Commons clarifies the constraints we need by adding accountability, contribution, and inclusive democratic input to governance to the list of moral essentials. ESS adds the importance of balance and integration, anchored in the realization that too much or too little of anything causes problems. Furthermore, as befits a systemic view, all of these factors are linked. Freedom, for example, cannot exist without justice.

Modern day Hong Kong also illustrates how fair-handed legal constraints convert the chaos of economic freedom into a safe playground for solution-seeking synergy. Where colonial powers often saw subject spots like Hong Kong as places to be pillaged, in the 1960s Sir John Cowperthwaite sought to energize economic networks using a Smithian experiment. Cowperthwaite’s experiment centered on creating a system with: (a) relatively little corruption; (b) an efficient and independent judiciary; (c) individual property rights and respect for the rule of law; and (d) an uncomplicated tax system with low rates on both individuals and businesses. This judicious balance of liberty and laws created a safe playground where innovation, self-organized development, and free-market flow could join hands synergistically. In three decades, this experiment turned Hong Kong from a backwater rock to an economic powerhouse.

The Chinese are now adding solution-seeking values to the mix, including incentives to: (a) be practical; (b) be open-minded; (c) seek truth from facts; and (d) avoid being trapped in rigid ideologies. Still, to become a regenerative-learning society, Hong Kong will also have to add inclusive democratic input; the free flow of ideas; and open, evidence-based debate.7

Regenerative logic is also apparent in a number of current movements. Following the New Deal’s infrastructure-building strategy, many of today’s reformers are arguing for a “Green New Deal,” which would create millions of good jobs retrofitting buildings and building new infrastructure for the transition to clean, green renewable energy. This Green New Deal would not only save the planet, it would revitalize the economy and reduce societal pressures by putting vast numbers of people to work in jobs that cannot be shipped overseas.

New experiments in stakeholder-owned networks/enterprises are also advancing the use of common-cause culture and more distributed empowerment in business. Farmers, for example, are banding together in stakeholder-owned food networks that provide the “economies of scale” that come with size, while leaving local ownership intact. Marjorie Kelly (2012) describes similar experiments in common-cause ownership from an employee-owned department store chain in London to a foundation-owned pharmaceutical company in Denmark. De Gues (2002) showed that distributed empowerment and fiduciary management tend to produce greater creativity, productivity, loyalty, and adaptive intelligence.

The rise of common-cause culture is also being aided by today’s communication revolution. Like the printing press in its day, the Internet, cell phones, and computers vastly accelerate the distribution of information, the speed of collective learning, and the emergence of new abilities. Not only do they revolutionize tasks from building a business to crowd-sourcing a political campaign, but their distributive nature makes oligarchic advantage increasingly hard to maintain. The dropping price of solar power, for instance, is slowly pushing the development of a more distributed energy-production system in which neighborhoods, churches, and companies with available roof-space partner with local funding sources and expertise to create micro power-plants, which not only save money by producing energy for the neighborhood, but also make money by selling surpluses back to the regional grid.

So, what makes economies vibrant? If we restore common-cause values and the constraints on power so lacking today, then a regenerative-learning economy looks a lot like modernity’s original innovative, synergetic, community-serving, free-enterprise dream, now with justice, fairness, and other ethical essentials restored to their central place. Here, fair markets improve flow. Freedom of opportunity and choice increase diversity, innovation, and specialization. Open, evidence-based learning makes the system adaptive, and the gentle constraints of fair laws grease the wheels of collaborative synergy. Inclusive, democratic input to rules, backed by accountability for everyone, builds a sense of belonging and trust, which spurs commitment and a willingness to give and take in fair measure.

ESS adds that small, medium, and large organizations all play a role. While we urgently need to rebuild small, local economies, we must take care to support medium- and large-scale networks as well because having too many small companies without enough medium and large ones leads to stagnation. Still, while big companies play an important role in large-scale processes, antitrust laws are essential because “too big” is code for “a dangerous imbalance.”


The contrast between the New Deal’s 50-year run of widespread prosperity and the inequality and instability rampant today raise a puzzling question: if the rules of societal vitality are known, why are we not using them today? The S-curve answer is that we are living under an oligarchic resurgence.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal rose in response to the Great Depression (an oligarchic crisis). Because its practices did indeed generate widespread prosperity, this relatively balanced form of capitalism dominated U.S. and world economies from the 1940s to the late 1970s, until a group of oligarchs funded the trickledown system that dominates today. To be fair, this oligarchic return-swing was propelled by a complex set of pressures. Thus, by the early 1970s, the pendulum of worker power had swung a bit too far, and pressure for higher wages pushed by powerful unions sparked an inflationary spiral, with wages, costs, and interest rates escalating in tandem. Worried about the loss of profits, the cost of labor, and growing limits on owners’ ability to respond, in 1971 future Supreme Court Justice Louis Powell sent a memo to his friend, Eugene Sydnor, director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying something needed to be done! In response, a consortium of elites organized an effort to eradicate New Deal policies, and replace them with a trickledown system more to their liking. This consortium set out to consciously construct the infrastructure needed for this movement to grow: they established think tanks (e.g., the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute); funded academic chairs and research; bought media networks; convened conferences; and created career paths for pundits, academics, and politicians. Rising under the banner of “neoliberal” economics, this movement’s stated goal was to “liberate market forces”; its unstated goal was to restore Big Business power worldwide.

Neoliberalism is both a political movement and a set of theoretical economic ideas, whose development was funded by wealthy elites in the 1970s. Its key principles — privatize, deregulate, reduce taxes on the wealthy, and eliminate labor, environmental, and consumer protections — have not produced as promised because they violate virtually every law of systemic vitality. Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities; encourage extractive and speculative practices; promote concentration over circulation; and extoll corporate gigantism instead of proper balance. Their inability to address pressing problems from climate change to jobless growth indicates they are very poor at learning.

Neoliberals justified their disregard of people and planet by replacing Adam Smith’s moral sentiments with a profit-maximizing imperative, in which, as Milton Friedman (1970) explained, “the manager’s sole motivation … must always remain the long-term increase in shareholder wealth.” They masked their promotion of oligarchic power under the glorification of individual liberty and libertarian free markets in which winners represent infallibly optimal outcomes, while losers are responsible for their own failure.

But, instead of a “rising tide that lifts all boats,” the removal of New Deal constraints produced a rapid rise in concentrated power and sociopathic behaviors — which we are now told is the only way to run an economy. Forty years of neoliberal rule has produced a global economy in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class has evaporated, and people and planet are dying. Big corporations poison people and pollute the planet because chemical, fossil-fuel, and other magnates want to maximize short-term profits. The rich are getting richer because politicians on both sides of the aisle support subsidies for massive corporations, bailouts for bankers, and tax breaks for the rich. The middle class has evaporated because oligarchs do not want to pay for good schools or fair wages. The poor are getting poorer because corporate subsidies are paid for by public austerity (i.e., cuts to infrastructure, education, and social programs of all kinds). Local economies are fragile because subsidized corporations suck wealth from grassroots networks. Meanwhile, “liberated capital” has created casino capitalism built around ever more exotic forms of speculation, manipulation, deceit, and gambling with other people’s money — almost none of which involve investing in the real economy.

Inequality, injustice, and corruption have blossomed as oligarchic power has become increasingly self-serving and unchecked. Mainstream institutions from academia and media to government support the process because neoliberal economists say it’s necessary and/or good, and because oligarchs control the money supply which everybody needs. Neoliberal economists see nothing wrong because GDP growth looks only at the volume of money, not where it goes. Meanwhile, commonwealth cuts, stagnant wages, and unstable jobs create a mushroom-cloud of misery in the public at large.

In short, the reason we do not use policies known to boost socioeconomic vitality is that we no longer live in a free-enterprise democracy that seeks justice, fairness, and liberty for all; we inhabit a corporate oligarchy that strives to maximize the wealth of a few people regardless of the cost to anyone or anything else. Honest people uphold oligarchic principles because: (a) everyone in their cohort believes the neoliberal paradigm; (b) making a living requires playing the game at hand; (c) people mistake it for the original Enlightenment dream; and/or (d) they do not know what else to do. Unfortunately, civilizations that leave human needs unmet and crises unanswered eventually reap the whirlwind. Austerity riots, stock market instability, and the climate crisis all indicate today’s pressure cooker is reaching its explosive crescendo.


This brings us to another puzzling question: if oligarchies violate the rules of systemic health, and if selfishness is not the hub of human nature, why do oligarchic hierarchies still dominate today? The laws of self-organizing development provide an empirical perspective on this too. In this view: (a) oligarchy is a paradigm, which emerged from the same growth pressures that produced hierarchies; and (b) while hierarchies are necessary, humanity has been slowly working its way out of oligarchic dysfunction through recurrent cycles of crisis and reform ever since. It is possible that today’s crisis may put the final nail in its coffin.

Carneiro (1970), for example, used the laws of self-organization — pressure and constraint — to explain why oligarchic hierarchies emerged in the first place. He starts by pointing out that hierarchical civilizations first arose in bounded or constrained regions of fertile land, such as the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Huang Ho, and Indus river valleys. Societal evolution in these regions tends to follow a standard pattern. When land is plentiful, tribes in a desirable valley tend to be semi-nomadic and well dispersed. They may have deadly quarrels, but these quarrels usually involve prestige or revenge, but not land per se. If a conflict is particularly bloody, a tribe will simply pick up and move. Thus, when land is plentiful, tribal collisions serve to spread groups evenly around the region. But, when desirable land fills up, deadly quarrels take a new form. Since it is no longer easy to flee, land becomes an issue, and the focus of war changes from revenge and prestige to acquiring land. The frequency and importance of war increase. At first, tribes try to eliminate threats and open new land by annihilating their opponents. Eventually, however, some chief hits upon the idea of subjugation. A defeated village is allowed to remain on its land, but is subjugated by a larger political unit controlled by the victor. Individuals who were successful in war are assigned the task of administering the new areas. They maintain law and order; collect tribute (later called taxes); and mobilize work groups to build roads, irrigation works and fortresses. Administrative classes live off wealth extracted from subjugated people and create constant pressure to produce more. Concentrated wealth then opens the door to new rounds of increasing complexity based on conquest and subjugation. As Carneiro puts it, “Villages were succeeded by chiefdoms, chiefdoms by kingdoms, and kingdoms by empires.”

In short, conquest produced an oligarchic type of hierarchy based on what Eisler (1988) calls a dominator paradigm. Where early agrarian villages used a mutualist culture under fiduciary leadership, dominator elites became a separate, self-serving class, which normalized coercive, extractive behavior toward lower-ranking people. Ruler-conquerors claimed “divine right” to sole, despotic ownership of wealth produced by lesser beings called slaves, subjects, and later employees. Oligarchic economies focus on empire-building and extraction, both at home and abroad. Elites justify their privilege by Divine Right of Power and by moral systems which extoll dominator talents such as prowess in battle, and skill at power games.

All of this should seem familiar because, despite millennia of reforms, this core paradigm is still with us. It remains because, as depressing as it may be, conquest and subjugation produced a more powerful and efficient system. Then too, over time people become so accustomed to this arrangement that they assume the dominator paradigm is an inevitable “natural order.”8

Yet, while oligarchic empires often appear immutable, the course of coercive power never runs smoothly. Instead, power hierarchies run by and for a few self-serving elites become increasingly unstable precisely because they do violate all the rules of regenerative vitality. Unrelenting extraction erodes grassroots networks, leading to economic necrosis. Glaring inequity and gluttonous wealth among uncaring elites strain the bonds of common cause. Failure to address pressing human needs eventually pushes pressure to the breaking point. Add elites’ tendency to block critical reforms, and you understand why all oligarchies eventually become candidates for collapse. This thought applies regardless of whether the dominator paradigm is used in business, religion, politics, finance, science, government or aristocracy.

Oligarchy’s pros and cons lead to civilization’s famous cycles: common-cause upsurges followed by glittering golden ages and cataclysmic falls. This pattern is seen in Greece, Rome, medieval Catholicism, and a host of empires. Oligarchic capitalism appears poised for the same.

Yet, oligarchic crises can also be seen as driving long-term learning, and a stairstep progression towards increasing justice, civility, reason, and empowerment – all of which improve systemic health. While success cannot be guaranteed, a new round of learning and reform appear to be underway today.


A complex web of pressures has been pushing the search for solutions in a vast array of arenas for decades already. Eco-agriculture uses systemic principles to generate healthy food, while avoiding the high costs of agro-industrial fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds. Medicine is learning how to restore health human by revitalizing gut-biomes. Fed up with ‘teaching-to-the-test’, a new generation of educators is beginning to explore more empowering methods such as cooperative learning, service learning, experiential learning, brain-based learning, and reconnecting to community.

Today’s pressures are also driving the birth of a new political-economic paradigm, visible in: the rise of progressive populism; the push to get the money out of politics and create inclusive democracy with fair elections; and the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25). These political efforts sit atop new strategies for energizing our economic metabolism. Community-serving financial institutions, such as public banking, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), and the use of anchor-institutions, help restore monetary circulation to local economies. Since subsidizing big corporations mostly serves to enrich oligarchs and drain local economies, more and more cities are beginning to explore new ways to stimulate local economies with maker-spaces, enterprise hubs, buy-local campaigns, and other devices (action towards collective vitality). Economist Jeremy Rifkin (2011) argues that today’s communication revolution is even pushing big business to change its model from using vertical integration to maximize extractive efficiency; to facilitating co-production networks using mutually beneficial relationships and the collaborative creation of high-quality services. Economist Robert Reich (1991) calls this the switch from high-volume industrialism to high-value capitalism.

All of these efforts, however, face immense oligarchic obstacles. Large corporations seeking to maintain extractive advantage push well-greased politicians to block public-serving policies from net-neutrality and consumer-protection laws to evidence-based input into health policies. Transnational corporations and authoritarian governments use big data collections and darknet deceptions to extract more, while trying to destroy democracy through manipulation and deceit.

So, while these and many other reforms represent important parts of today’s systemic-solution, none of them will produce the breakthrough we need unless we also transform our political, economic and societal worldview. ESS can support today’s new dream, but establishing it with the speed we need is going to require a conscious plan. Taking a page from the neoliberal playbook, what we need is: 1) a compelling articulation of today’s spiritual spur; 2) high-integrity leadership; 3) organizational infrastructure designed to facilitate the change process; and 4) funding and regenerative reinvestment schemes that move the process forward in an economically-sustainable way.

While the emotional spur driving the new dream has yet to the articulated, at least the science is clear. Instead of promoting constant consumption, a solution-seeking society strives, consciously and collectively, to enhance the vitality of all people and the planet as a whole. Instead of focusing on financial wealth, it seeks to build the world we all want to inhabit, one with social, emotional, political, economic and environmental well-being rising in tandem. In this world, purpose, meaning, belonging, commitment, contribution, caring and integrity are even more important than money.

Where neoliberals disdain moral principles other than money, a regenerative-learning society embraces a value system more akin to Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) Governing the Commons, Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, and Amartya Sen’s Justice.

Regenerative learning, however, will never get off the ground if it does not connect its inspiring dreams to solid science and effective practice. Measures of systemic health help, but much work needs to be done to translate energy rules and tools into the language and issues of various fields, as well as to the concerns of everyday people.

A unified vision connecting a diversity reforms is essential because great change is a multiscale, multisector process, with rethinking taking place in every arena and level from grassroots intricacy to global institutions. Facilitating this change will require supportive infrastructure: think tanks, research projects, wordsmiths, etc. This, in turn, requires organization and funding. While crowdsourcing can help, the development of infrastructure for global change will require the support of visionary elites. The kind of cultural change we need will require leaders who: 1) are committed to serving systemic health of all people and the planet; 2) have the skills and willingness to cross tribal boundaries; and 3) know how to bring people with diverse talents, ideas and concerns together in common-cause community.

We will also have to extract ourselves from the merry-go-round momentum of the dominator paradigm. As impossible as this may seem, there is hope because the writing is on the wall, socially, economically, politically and environmentally. Some people are driven by concern for their kids, society, or the planet; others see the hand of history. Yet, there are also practical reasons to choose regenerative learning. After all, stable societies are better for business; you can’t do business without a healthy planet; and, the New Deal proves that “everyone does better, when everyone does better.” People at many levels may also be encouraged by the fact that the alternative ahead is not communism or socialism, but a new stage of free enterprise made healthier and more adaptive by restoring the common-cause values and constraints on power that keep the system in balance.


Beneath angry backlash and entrenched establishment, a new dream is taking shape. The science of energy systems supports this dream with a more integrated understanding of systemic health, backed by quantitative measures, empirical theory, and an empowering vision of humanity as a learning species. Energy rules and tools add unity and rigor to the social, economic, and political reforms already heading toward this new synthesis. What we need now is leadership, organization, and a spiritual spur that unites us in common cause. People, planet, prosperity, and happiness too! Perhaps it’s not so hard to imagine after all.


  1. Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. (2012). Why nations fail. New York, NY: Random House.
  2. Carneiro, R. (1967). On the relationship between size of population and complexity of social structure. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 23(3), 234–243. doi: 10.1086/soutjanth.23.3.3629251
  3. Carneiro, R. (1970). A theory of the origin of the State: Traditional theories of state origins are considered and rejected in favor of a new ecological hypothesis. Science (New York, N.Y.), 169(3947), 733–738. doi:10.1126/science.169.3947.733
  4. Chaisson, E. (2002). Cosmic evolution: The rise of complexity. Boston, MA: Harvard Press.
  5. De Gues, A. (2002). The living company. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
  6. Eisler, R. (1988). The chalice and the blade. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
  7. Friedman, M. (1970, September 13). The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. New York Times Magazine, (pp. 32–33).
  8. Goerner, S., Lietaer, B., & Ulanowicz, R. (2009). Quantifying economic sustainability: Implications for free enterprise, theory, and practice. Ecological Economics, 69(1), 76–81. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.07.018
  9. Kelly, M. (2012). Owning our future: The emerging emerging ownership revolution. New York: Barrett Koehler.
  10. King, M. L. (1958). The gospel messenger, out of the long night. Official organ of the church of the Brethren. (p. 14). Elgin, Illinois: General Brotherhood Board.
  11. Laszlo, E. (1987). Evolution: The grand synthesis. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
  12. Margulis, L. (1981). Symbiosis in cell evolution. San Francisco, CA: Freeman and Co.
  13. Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1987). The tree of knowledge. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
  14. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. London, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Prigogine, I. (1980). From being to becoming. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.
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  1. Cited in: Perkins, J. (2007). The secret history of the American empire. San Francisco, CA:Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 160.

  2. We use “Energy System Sciences” as an umbrella term for disciplines such as self-organization theory, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, nonlinear dynamics, Energy Network Analysis, resilience, and Panarchy, which study how energy dynamics affect health and development in all types of systems.

  3. This theory is also called “General Evolution” (Laszlo, 1987) because it applies to all types of organization (i.e., in general); and “Cosmic Evolution” (Chaisson, 2002) because it begins with the origins of the cosmos itself.

  4. A power-law is a geometric progression (xn); fractals are a type of power law. A “power law ratio” means that, moving from the top down, each scale (N + 1) has X times as many elements as scale (N). For example, if the top level (N = 1) has three people (X = 3), then the next level down (N = 2) would have 32 = 9 and the 3rd would have 33 = 27.

  5. Fath, B., Fiscus, D., & Goerner, S. (2019). Measuring Regenerative Vitality. Global Transitions, in press.


  7. The real Adam Smith: Ideas that changed the world. Curiosity Stream.

  8. Thus, in Politics, Aristotle argued that nature is built of elements that are meant to rule and elements that are meant to be ruled. Aristocrats are meant to rule slaves, and men are meant to rule women. He said anything else violated the observable, and hence the “natural order,” a phrase used by generations of dominators thereafter.

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